Book Talk: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SOPHIE STARK by Anna North (via Shelf Awareness)

Blue Rider Press (May 19, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0399173390 / 9780399173394)
Fiction, 288 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 9, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

book review THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SOPHIE STARK Anna North fiction
Anna North’s second novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, has the intentional feel of a documentary. The title character comes across as subject more than protagonist, revealed through the perspectives of others and her work with them rather more than through her own actions…and that’s probably how she would have wanted it.

The cult filmmaker who called herself Sophie Stark spent her youth struggling to express herself in words. Soon after arriving at college, she picked up a video camera, taught herself to use it, and found that what she wanted to say was best conveyed through images–and via the stories of other people. Her first film, a quirky documentary about a player on her college’s basketball team, opens the door to a filmmaking fellowship in New York City. She discovers her next projects there–revealed from the stage at a storytelling showcase in Brooklyn and shared privately by a musician while they made a music video together–and the movies she builds on these stories begin to attract a following. Stark’s work becomes known for a rough-edged beauty and intimacy, the latter of which comes from the blurring and overlap between her romantic partners and collaborators, and neither of which easily translates to the larger, less personal scale of Hollywood moviemaking.

As the novel moves between several narrative voices, Sophie Stark emerges from the recollections of her collaborators: Allison, the Brooklyn storyteller who becomes her girlfriend; Jacob, the musician and her eventual husband; Daniel, the college basketball player; and Robbie, her brother, whose video camera started everything. In telling of their experiences with her, each of these characters reveals parts of their stories that Stark’s films never told. A fascinating, provocative portrait of the artist as seen by her subjects, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is as compelling and challenging as the movies she made.

Gripping and provocative, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is a haunting story of fame, love, and legacy told through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist. Sophie Stark begins her filmmaking career by creating a documentary about her obsession, Daniel, a college basketball star. But when she becomes too invasive, she finds herself the victim of a cruel retribution. The humiliation doesn’t stop her. Visionary and unapologetic, Sophie begins to use stories from the lives of those around her to create movies, and as she gains critical recognition and acclaim, she risks betraying the one she loves most. 
Told in a chorus of voices belonging to those who knew Sophie best, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is an intimate portrait of an elusive woman whose monumental talent and relentless pursuit of truth reveal the cost of producing great art.
From Chapter One:

“When Sophie first saw me, I was onstage. This girl Irina who I lived with at the time had organized a storytelling series at a bar in Bushwick, and after a couple weeks of watching I decided I wanted to tell a story too. I wasn’t like the other kids in the house; I’d never assumed I’d be an actor or a writer or anything creative. When I was growing up, everybody figured I’d stay in Burnsville, West Virginia, and have some kids. But there I was in New York and for ten minutes I could make people listen to me and treat me like I was important. The theme that week was “scary camping stories.” I was wearing my only pretty dress, a blue halter with a full skirt that I’d bought for seven dollars at a vintage store, and I got up onstage after some girl talked for twenty minutes about seeing a possum. Here’s the story I told, the one that started everything for Sophie and me.”

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